Monday, February 3, 2020

Aleriel, or A Voyage to Other Worlds by Wladislaw Lach-Szyrma

Eloquently imaginative solar system travelogue
Wladislaw Lach-Szyrma was an English curate of the Anglican Church. (His father was a Polish immigrant, hence the name.) In addition to his work as a parish priest, Lach-Szyrma penned two science fiction novels, the first of which, Aleriel, or A Voyage to Other Worlds, was published in 1883. Though a member of the clergy, Lach-Szyrma seems to have held very liberal religious views. In his preface to Aleriel, he expresses cosmological views similar to those for which Dominican friar Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake in 1600—that is, that there is nothing special about the Earth or the human race. The universe is filled with worlds, and it is likely that these myriad planets are teeming with life, intelligent or otherwise. Lach-Szyrma envisions each world as being in a different state of evolutionary development, with some life forms more primitive and some more advanced than those of Earth. In Aleriel, Lach-Szyrma illustrates his theories by taking the reader on a tour of several celestial bodies in our solar system.

The story opens in Brittany, France, where the narrator, an Oxford student, is enjoying a holiday. There he meets a strange man, piteously deformed with a pronounced hunchback, yet possessing a remarkably beautiful face. This man is a foreigner, but won’t say exactly where he’s from. Though obviously intelligent, the stranger exhibits a surprising naivete, asks many oddly penetrating questions, and is often quite openly critical of European society and customs. As Lach-Szyrma has already revealed in his preface, this encounter leads to a journey to other planets, but the less revealed about the details the better for the reader..

Lach-Szyrma certainly seems to have been well versed in the scientific knowledge of his time, both astronomical and biological. He demonstrates a thorough familiarity with the topographical features of Mars, for example, and makes reasonable conjectures about the life forms of these foreign worlds. Many of his ideas are antiquated, of course, like the formerly popular notions that empty space is filled with ether or that Mars has oceans and canals. Lach-Szyrma relates his story so eloquently, however, that such forgivably erroneous ideas never seem ridiculous nor hokey.

One of the few faults in Lach-Szyrma’s storytelling is that he structures the narrative such that the narrator experiences most of the novel’s wonders through second-hand accounts rather than as a first-hand witness. In addition, as one might expect from a clergyman, the author devotes maybe too much attention to the subject of religion, asserting that no matter which planet we may live on, all intelligent life worships the same God, each in his or her own way. Lach-Szyrma describes the religious rituals of each race of beings encountered, as if he were conducting a contest to see which of his imaginary species can boast the most pious planet.

I read a lot of these old-school science fiction novels, and Aleriel is really one of the better examples of early space travel fiction. The literary quality of Lach-Szyrma’s writing is a cut above many of the sci-fi practitioners of his era. He may not be in the same league with H. G. Wells or Jules Verne, but Aleriel is certainly better than John Jacob Astor’s A Journey in Other Worlds (1894) or Garret P. Serviss’s Edison’s Conquest of Mars (1898). Aleriel is a lesser-known gem definitely worth a read for anyone interested in 19th century science fiction.

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